The unregulated industry of microplastics

Despite being an island, most of us in the UK live far enough away from the sea for it to be a treat to spend time by it. But none of us are far from the streams and rivers that criss-cross our country, spiriting away our household effluent every time we shower, do the dishes or put a wash on. Groundbreaking research reveals that the chemicals and microplastics that we thought we had flushed far out to sea, have remained on our shores.

Whilst the issue of microplastics is not new, this is the first time that research has been done on a global scale. Published at the end of last year by scientists now working at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, samples were taken from beaches in 18 different countries, including the UK. Every single one contained pieces of microplastic less than one millimetre in size. This microscopic plastic is accumulating in the marine environment and could be entering the food chain.

Studies have found that microplastics in the ocean also absorb pollutants such as DDT, although more research needs to be done to determine how they impact on marine life and subsequently on human health.

This global study found that around 80% of the plastic was made from fibres that are common in textiles. ‘A large proportion’ may have originated from washing clothes as most of the tiny plastic pieces were polyester, acrylic and nylon but Richard Thompson, a Professor of Marine Biology at Plymouth University, explains that there are a number of sources of microplastics other than fabrics.

“They could be fragmentations of larger items, pellets and powders that were spilled en-route for manufacture into plastic items, and plastic particles that have been used as abrasives in domestic and industrial cleaning operations”.

Dr Mark Browne, who led the study, says that the biggest issue at the moment is that companies are not using toxicological information in their decision-making, which is a concern because cleaning products that once used natural materials like sand, pumice or apricot kernels, now widely contain plastic substitutes. “Companies need to factor in their plastic as well as their carbon footprint” says Browne. “The plastic polyethylene is widely used in abrasive products like toilet cleaners, facial and body scrubs, products that blast-clean boats and possibly even toothpastes”.

But the industry itself is not able to tell you what plastic particles their products contain and how much of these products are in the environment. Inferences made on incomplete data have polarised the debate, making it harder to work together. “We don’t know why companies have switched to using plastic particles but it may be because they are sourcing plastics from waste materials because they are cheaper” says Browne.

“The situation is that although industry thinks consumers don’t want to pay more for eco-products, consumers do expect companies to make products that are safe if they enter the environment”.

Thompson explains how plastics are inherently recyclable. “The solution is to dispose of end of life plastic appropriately via recycling”, he says “and filters on washing machines would help with the specific problem of release from textiles”. Sewerage treatment plants might also consider such filters but Browne thinks they might be reluctant to introduce them because they would need to be very fine, and this would likely cause sewage to back up into households. “They are even reluctant to let scientists take samples from their effluent because of the negative press they may receive”.

Currently Browne is working at the University of California, Santa Barbara, looking at how to reduce the microplastics that textiles release when washed – some polyester garments release more than 1,900 fibres per garment, per wash. He is working with Patagonia to develop fabrics that are more durable and shed the least amount of fibres. Consumers may be more familiar with tumble-dryer ‘lint’, which accumulates in the filter and should be removed each time you put a fresh load of clothes in. But lint from washing disappears down the drain. Browne explains that the research is partly funded by companies who want to be prepared for when regulations come into force, whenever that might be. “They want to be the people who set the benchmarks” he says, “they want to be the gold standard for ‘benign-by-design’ products, as we call them”.

The US and European countries give microplastics the same hazard rating as grass clippings. “It’s a very poorly understood area”, says Browne “but scientists can only do so much research in the absence of funding. Look at how tightly regulated medicines are, which are used in much smaller quantities than these plastics. But unless there is a lot of media attention and consumer action, we don’t see much movement on this”. Much more research is needed on the impact of these microplastics on our marine environment and what specific threat they pose to human health. A Working Group on Marine Debris has been established but it will be years before more is known.

It would be very expensive to extract these microplastics from the oceans, if the technology became available, but Browne isn’t even sure it would ever be possible. “The release of microplastics into our water system is likely to be irreversible” he says.

This article was first published by The Urban Times in July 2012.